When I think of Marvin Chun, I don’t think of his majestic portrait in the Berkeley dining hall. Instead I think of a tentative first year in South Korea, burned out by the rigor of a regimented education. That student tries to transfer to an American college but his family can’t afford it. So, he works harder and harder — and one day becomes the dean of Yale College.
But Chun’s fairy tale is far from over. For the third time in under a decade, Yale College has a new dean. In his new role, Chun will have an opportunity to preserve and enrich the residential liberal arts education he never had.
What exactly does a dean of Yale College do? Jonathan Holloway defined his tenure as dean in the moment he stood on the Women’s Table, listening tearfully to the grievances of students of color at the onset of the November 2015 uprising. However painful that episode was for him — as Yale College’s first black dean and a leading scholar of African American history — it so profoundly spoke to Holloway’s humanity and decency.
In contrast, sheer cerebral intensity characterized Holloway’s predecessor, Dean Mary Miller. Taking principled stances, Miller made significant policy strides on hot-button issues, including alcohol emergencies and sexual assault.
So, what kind of dean will Chun become? If I might be so bold as to set out a decanal agenda, I would propose three broad areas of focus.
First, Chun must serve as an educational leader. Fourteen years have passed since the last comprehensive review of the Yale College curriculum. In the intervening years, students have called for an ethnic studies requirement; first-year advising has been revamped; more and more students enroll at Yale intent on majoring in STEM fields. Independent of what one thinks of these changes, what is clear is that we need a holistic reimagining of undergraduate education at Yale.
Second, Chun must act as an advocate for all students, particularly in a time of political uncertainty. He should be impartial and objective, but he cannot remain neutral, for the dean of Yale College must be a bastion of the University’s mission.
Since the November 2015 uprising, a new template has emerged for crisis communications at Yale, coinciding with the appointment of Eileen O’Connor — former State Department official in Afghanistan — as vice president of communications. Each major incident is followed with a community-wide email and then an in-person conversation.
While this strategy has worked well, the Yale community will be looking for more in its leader. It expects the dean of Yale College to speak forcefully on the national stage, contributing his expertise and authority on a range of issues, including Title IX, immigration and college debt.
True, Yale is constrained as a 501(3)(c) nonprofit in its lobbying activities. But in using his office to make a statement, Chun will be following a distinguished tradition. After the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, Dean William Devane held a large rally and offered scholarships to Hungarian students as a response to the perceived inaction of the U.S. government. In today’s climate, there is little doubt that Chun will similarly be called on to act.
Finally, Chun must be a steward of faculty governance. While the dean no longer has control over tenure and promotion in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, he is first among equals in the administration of Yale College. In the past few years, a managerial class has emerged at Yale, even as positions in Yale Dining, Information Technology Services and administrative support have been cut. This past summer alone, the Yale College Dean’s Office hired two dozen employees.
To be clear, I have worked with many administrators and deeply respect their work. Frontline administrators, particularly residential college deans and cultural center staff, deserve all the support that they get.
But behind-the-scenes bureaucratic creep doesn’t just stifle school culture; it risks snuffing out the democratic principles of the modern university. By legitimating intrusion into student life, administrators corrode the overriding presumption that college students are autonomous adults.
And, in shifting the balance of power from the faculty room in Connecticut Hall to the offices of Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, we threaten the sacrosanct nature of the University as an educational institution rather than an administrative body.
Thankfully, Chun is uniquely qualified to confront these challenges. Not only was he one of Yale’s most popular teachers, he spent nine years as a celebrated Head of College, established the new Neuroscience major and chaired the Faculty Advisory Committee on Yale-NUS.
Chun will never match Holloway’s rhetorical prowess or Miller’s scholarly gravitas. But every student and professor I know has spoken of his character, judgment, sincerity and good humor. So, with luck, Chun’s story will be more than a fairy tale.
It will be an epic.
JUN YAN CHUA is a senior in Saybrook College and former Opinion Editor for the News. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .